Book Review: Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei
By Janet WebbFebruary 21, 2020
Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang, is a very timely and propulsively plotted tale of cyberbullying and revenge, about a woman on the hunt for the truth about her sister’s death.
Older sister Nga-Yee is almost home after a long day at the library. The only thing on her mind is a nutritious, cheap dish she can prepare for her younger sister, Siu-Man. There’s a “crowd at the foot of her building, Wu Wha House.” Nga-Yee doesn’t quicken her pace. Voyeurism isn’t her thing, “which was why many of her secondary school classmates had labeled her a loner, an introvert, a nerd.” But Auntie Chan, a middle-aged neighbor, screams her name.
In the light of the setting sun, Nga-Yee walked through the crowd and was finally able to make out the horrifying sight.
People were huddled around a patch of concrete about a dozen yards from the main entrance. A teenage girl in a white school uniform lay there, tangled hair obscuring her face, dark red liquid puddling around her head.
Nga-Yee’s first thought was, Isn’t that someone from Siu-Man’s school?
Two seconds later she realized the still figure on the ground was Siu-Man.
Her little sister was sprawled on the cold concrete.
All the family she had in the world.
Instantly, everything around her turned upside down.
This riveting scene plunges us into Nga-Yee’s unimaginable grief. Nga-Yee is convinced Siu-Man was compelled to jump from their balcony and so begins “a thrilling, cleverly constructed mystery set in hyper-modern Hong Kong about a woman on the hunt for the truth about her sister’s death.” Chan Ho-Kei is a lifelong resident of Hong Kong, and he deftly portrays HK as an amalgam of small towns, belying its sprawling reputation.
A policeman bluntly tells Nga-Yee, “Your sister killed herself,” and Nga-Yee acknowledges that “Siu-Man had ample reason to seek death.” Six months ago, coming home from school on the MRT (HK’s Mass Transit Railway), she was sexually groped. Siu-Man identifies the perpetrator, Shiu Tak-Ping, and Shiu is sentenced to three months in prison. Nga-Yee thought the sentence would bring closure, but all hell breaks loose when her little sister is subsequently abused on social media as well. Exhibit A “appeared on Popcorn, a local chatboard.”
POSTED BY kidkit727 ON 10-04-2015, 22:18
Fourteen-Year-Old Slut Sent My Uncle to Prison!!
I can’t take it anymore. I have to stand up for my uncle.
My uncle’s 43. He lives with my aunt in Wong Tai Sin and owns a stationery shop. He works so hard every day, just to earn a living for his family.
Shiu’s nephew says his uncle was falsely accused, and the story gains legs. Nga-Yee resolves to track down the nephew. Her motivation is nebulous—does she want the nephew to “kowtow before Siu-Man’s grave and beg for forgiveness?” She needs a detective.
She remembered that her colleague Wendy had a relative, a Mr. Mok, who’d opened a detective agency. She’d mentioned it the year before while they were sorting through a box of old detective novels in the library.
Mr. Mok offers her the friends-and-family discount—around 12,000 HK dollars, or $1,550 US. The “more than $80,000 for Siu-Man’s university education” Nga-Yee saved is no use now, so of course, Mr. Mok discovers something.
“You found Shiu Tak-Ping’s nephew?”
“Well, that’s the problem.” Mr. Mok took a stack of documents and photographs from his bag as he spoke. “Shiu Tak-Ping doesn’t have any siblings—he’s an only child.”
“Yes?” She didn’t quite understand.
“That means he can’t have a nephew or niece.”
Then who wrote the post on Popcorn excoriating Siu-Man? Who’s behind kidkit727? Mr. Mok can’t help, saying, “This is a traditional detective firm, and we aren’t really equipped to ferret out someone hiding on the internet.” Nga-Yee is devastated. Touched by her grief, Mr. Mok scribbles a few words on a business card. Only N, an odd, unlicensed private detective who “specializes in high-tech cases” can help her. Straight-arrow Nga-Yee is dubious.
“But have you ever thought who us detectives call when we encounter a case that stumps us?”
Silent a moment, Nga-Yee looked down at the business card.
“You call N?”
Mr. Mok grinned. She’d got it right.
“Once again, I don’t know if he’ll take your case, but it might help if you show him this card.”
Nga-Yee is persistent, pressing N’s doorbell without cessation. The door opens a crack, but she’s told to go away. She continues buzzing and shows Mr. Mok’s card to get her through the door. N is dressed in grimy, frayed clothes so that the “overall effect was of someone who slept in a doorway.” He may “look like a tramp and live in a dump,” but he’s what she needs. Unfortunately, he turns her down; his “time is precious—[he’s] hardly going to waste it on a garbage case like this.”
They both leave. When she gets to the street, she’s aghast to see two men grab hold of N. They look like “triad gangsters.” She dubs them Tattoo and Blondie. When they spot her looking, they throw her in the van too. N isn’t intimidated. He hands them envelopes with incriminating pictures inside—he even has blackmail on the driver. In no time, N and Nga-Yee are deposited back in N’s neighborhood. What on earth.
“Do you have shit for brains? Isn’t it obvious? Those gangsters came to pick a fight with me,” said N breezily.
But why were they freed? “N shrugged. ‘Everyone has a weakness. As long as you can find your opponent’s, you can pretty much do what you like.’” But he still won’t take her case. Nga-Yee wants his “godlike powers” focused on finding kidkit727. She stalks him on the street, pounds on his door, and “continue[s] to bang this pot that never boiled.” It pays off. For $82,629.50 HK, he’ll take the case. Why that amount?
She’d made a withdrawal from an ATM that morning, and the balance on the screen was . . .
“You—How did you—” She stopped herself. It was clear that N had hacked into her bank account. She felt completely naked, as if this vulgar man could see every inch of her.
She knew how Blondie and Tattoo felt seeing their names on those envelopes.
She instantly agrees to pay him what he wants. N wants the exact amount in either cash or bitcoin, saying, “I won’t accept it if it’s short even one penny.” What changed his mind? He responds by deflecting, focusing on why he’s draining her bank account.
“Because I wanted to make sure that this case was the most important thing in the world to you. You agreed right away.”
N is a cyber-security wizard, but his other secret power is “manipulating human behavior,” and Nga-Yee has passed the first test. In addition, N says there’s something fascinating about the message on the Popcorn board. Nga-Yee is Dante and N is her Virgil in this modern Divine Comedy. He guides her through the concentric circles of Hell and Purgatory, aka Hong Kong, glamourous on the surface and pulsing underneath with “dark webs of power.”
Second Sister touches on universal themes like punishment and forgiveness, and it explores the gap between offline and online behavior. What is real? What can be manipulated? Readers will savor every twist and turn of Chan Ho-Kei’s tour de force, especially the interplay between N and Nga-Yee. How about another story with N at the helm? Second Sister is a masterclass on the vagaries of our digital age.